Student Op-Eds

What to Make of What Just Happened

By Andrew Bellis ’14

Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman have been covered ad nauseum over the past few weeks. It seems they represent: justice in a post-racial world, racism from America’s past once again rearing its ugly head, the tragedy of gun death in America, upholding the right to protect one’s self, and a million other things that fit one way or another into comfortable narratives. But if they’re comfortable, why all the commotion? Well, this is what happens when narratives come to a head. Within this case, there are two narratives that a majority of Americans have accepted, whether or not they can admit it. They track through pop culture, media, and backyard barbecues. It is actually amazing that the two have not been confronted in a watershed moment before this, but here we are. Simply put they are: “America Has Moved Into a Post-Racial Age”, and “Black Men In Their Teens And Twenties Are Wanna Be Gangbangers And Thugs.”

America Has Moved Into a Post-Racial Ag.   The pervasiveness of this statement cannot be understated. It is not a racist statement, but merely one that interprets certain facts through a certain lens. It is also not a statement that only white people believe, but holds water with elements from all races. We have seen actions that (supposedly) herald it over the last half-decade: First and foremost the election and re-election of President Obama, the repeal of a key provision of the Voter Civil Rights Amendment, the vastly increased percentage of blacks and other minorities who attend college, the list can go on. The belief in this statement seems to stem from two important factors, overt racism and racial inequality have declined over the past 50 years and Americans have grown tired of the “we need to improve racial equality” mantra. At some point in the last decade, the success of the minority community and the lagging endurance to continue fighting for a cause that is no longer cutting edge built up to create a new narrative, one that relieved us the same way a cold drink relieves a hot summer day. This fresh new concept of America as a post-racial society meant we no longer had to struggle and fight for something. We were rewarded with the feeling of a victor without understanding exactly how the fight ended. Thus, it is understandable that people would not want to return to the time before this feeling. Who wants to go back into a fight after already having been declared the winner? Instead we have followed the narrative because it does what narratives do, it made us feel comfortable. It made the world seem simpler. It painted problems in black and white (no pun intended) and allowed us a chance to “see” all the progress we had made. The problem with it, and the problem with most narratives, is that it did not accurately describe the world as it is. It ignored certain facts and overplayed others. Blacks are eight times more likely to be jailed for minor drug possession than whites. White on black homicide is ten times more likely to be considered “justified” according to the FBI. This does not even begin to get into the questions of economic equality and home ownership equality. On average, blacks and other minorities have been impacted far more severely by the Great Recession than whites. This drives right at the question of historical economic success and its relation to current economic success, a question that impacts the minority communities far more than the white community. Recognizing this is a key component in understanding the limits of the Post-Racial narrative.

Viewing issues such as the fight for racial equality as they actually are rather than in narrative form can be both mentally and emotionally exhausting. To understand that there is no perfect ending to race relations in America, that it will be an ongoing struggle as long as people of different races come together and coexist, takes a great toll on all of us. It is far easier to accept the belief that we won the racial equality fight and have moved beyond it. To say that we have entered a post-racial age however, is to say that race holds no (or at least minimal) influence on people. Race does not impact them socially or economically and the heritage of race and racism no longer holds any weight in American culture. While we may desire to move beyond our past; the policies of slavery, Jim Crow, and others are still being felt today, especially economically. The idea of a post-racial society is itself, a mirage, a goal that we can never actually achieve. So where does that leave us? We have made progress, but the goal that the narrative says we’ve gotten to is actually unreachable. Well, it leaves us with other contradictory narratives that rise up to fill the gaps left by this post-racial society narrative such as Whites are more oppressed than blacks now, Blacks and other minorities are less well off on average than whites because they are lazy and most importantly to the Zimmerman trial….Black Men In Their Teens And Twenties Are Wanna Be Gangbangers And Thugs

This is the other key narrative that has risen up from the trial. It was key to Zimmerman’s defense. Trayvon attacked Mr. Zimmerman just like those gangstas in the rap videos who say they would beat up anyone who crosses them. Even if he wasn’t shot there, Trayvon was dead in a few years anyways. Look at him, he’d been suspended from school, he smoked marijuana, what more proof do you need? In 2009-2010, one out of every nine students was suspended from school. According to 2012 polls, up to 40% of American teens have smoked marijuana and at least 10% smoke more than twenty times a month. Yet, we associate those two elements with blacks and with criminality. While black students may be suspended at a much higher rate than whites and other minorities, studies suggest that this is more a form of institutional racism than anything else. That is to say, on average when a black student is caught in the hallway after the tardy bell, he or she is far more likely to be suspended than if a fellow white student was caught instead. In the same vein, if a black teen is caught smoking marijuana, he or she is far more likely to be arrested for possession than a white teen.Again, those are averages, I’m sure there is anecdotal evidence that supports counter-theories but on average, black teens, and especially black male teens, face harsher punishments than their white counterparts do for the same offense. While young black males are charged with a much higher percentage of crimes than their white counterparts, how much of that is because whites are let off with warnings that blacks rarely get or can afford better legal defense?

A book could be written (and many have) on the development of black culture in America and how violence and criminality came to be glorified in some elements of that culture. However, white culture and other cultures have similar developments that are not addressed. American Psycho is a beloved book and movie about a serial killer in a Wall Street firm who embodies much of the typical white male experience as a corporate executive. Breaking Bad is a television show about a high school chemistry teacher who becomes a drug lord in New Mexico. Dexter is a popular show about a serial killer who hides from detection while working as a member of the police department. All of these protagonists are terrible violent people, all of these protagonists are white. The list of violent and lawless protagonists goes back for more than a century. Yet the narrative ignores all this. Instead, we focus on the violence present in black culture and the “strange” fashion of black culture. We see the incarceration rate and simply accept it because it fits the narrative rather than question why it is that things are the way they are. All this is to say that this convenient narrative we have bought into shields us from greater truths about our society as a whole. It allows us to commit what is known as an ecological fallacy. We mistake trends in a group for individual behavior. The first example of this dealt with immigrants who settled in highly illiterate states. What social scientists originally drew from this was that immigrants must be abnormally illiterate when compared to the rest of society. In fact, immigrants tested well above the average literacy rate, they just settled into states with high illiteracy rates. In our case, there is no reason to infer that blacks deserve harsher treatment because they are more likely to commit the crime. Offending patterns do not make different sentencing structures reasonable.

So what happened when these two narratives came together in a national story? Conflict. It is very difficult to entertain the notion that America has entered a post-racial society at the same time as the notion that young black men are all wanna be thugs. As a result, you had a surprising crystallization of sides that follow the narratives and ones that don’t. People who followed at least one of those narratives were forced to either accept the other or reject both. If America has moved beyond race then young black men must deserve the treatment and reputation they have (Accepting the ecological fallacy). If young black men don’t deserve their reputation, then America has not moved into a post-racial society. Some people were shed from the narrative-following group while the rest were doubled down in their commitment.

Cliche or not, the first step to solving any problem is admitting there is one. This country still has a problem with race and race dialogue. We don’t have lynch mobs and we don’t have police murdering protesters but we do still have problems. If you still think we don’t, I would ask you to read up on the story of Marissa Alexander. She was convicted of attempted murder and received 20 years in prison for firing warning shots at her husband. This was after, according to sworn testimony, he stated that “If I can’t have you, nobody going to have you” and blocked her exit from the house. She made it past him, got her gun from her garage and came back into her house (where the husband and kids were still present) telling him to leave and firing a shot into the air. When she made claims for a defense based on the Stand Your Ground law in Florida, the judge dismissed it saying there was not enough evidence to show she feared for her life. He cited that returning to the home was not characteristic of a person who feared for his or her life. The disparity in how these cases were handled is evident and a problem.

Fixing this problem is not easy. There is no magical solution, no single law we can change to make things all better. What we do need though, is dialogue. Race can’t be the leftover pushed under the rug. It allows narratives such as the post-racial America and young black gangbangers to fester in the cultural conscience. If those false ideas are not rooted out and confronted, then we can’t be surprised when people act as if they are true. In the same vein, this is not a chance for individual people to recover their past glory. We don’t need another march on Washington; the government can’t tell the culture how to feel. It’s not that laws such as these were written to be racist, it’s that cultural weight that race has that tilts their outcomes toward racial disparity. Open and honest dialogue is the only solution. That is what creates understanding. The cop that feels more sympathetic to the white kid he finds with a joint than the black kid isn’t an evil, KKK supporting racist, he simply better relates to the white kid’s background. We can fix that (or at least start to) by ending the ostracization of race discussions. Talk about race. Talk about what makes you uncomfortable. Share the feelings you fear are racist. The only way to change the status quo on race is to partake in ending the silence on it, to have reasonable and clear discussions about what you see and how you interact with race on a daily basis. Bring all your fears and concerns into the open and air them out so they don’t stay with you and force a regrettable decision at the worst possible moment. Creating this dialogue may not shape legislation in the future, but if it becomes a part of the culture we won’t need it to.